“WHICH one of you bastards has my trousers?”
With this quip, Keith “Blue” McRae reportedly greeted his rescuers after crawling backwards with a broken leg for more than three days through the Papua New Guinea jungle during the Second World War, wearing out the seat of his pants.
While Mr McRae had retained his sense of humour despite his ordeal, it was tested even further because it took about eight months for his leg, broken by a Japanese bullet, to heal.
His son Lex McRae, 67, of Warrnambool, and granddaughter Catriona Muir, 43, got a feel for the ordeal Keith McRae went through in May when they trekked the Black Cat Track in PNG where he was shot in a Japanese ambush in 1943.
Keith McRae had been assumed dead after his group of four commandos was ambushed. But he was found by a search party 80 hours later crawling back towards his company’s camp after setting his leg in a makeshift splint.
To make progress, he had to crawl over logs and dig under obstructions across the track, drinking water off leaves and extracting leeches that crawled up his nose.
Lex McRae said his father’s feat of survival instilled a determination among his fellow soldiers that nobody should be left behind no matter how great the odds against survival.
The McRaes’ trek also paid tribute to Lex’s uncle Thomas McRae, who was killed fighting in Papua New Guinea in 1945. Mr McRae said the six-day trek through the mountainous terrain was gruelling and he became dehydrated on the first day.
The Black Cat Track is not well travelled and was the scene of a grisly attack last month when three porters escorting another trek were killed by locals believed to be angry they were not getting a share of the trek’s proceeds. One of those murdered was a porter who had earlier escorted Mr McRae and his group, which included his son-in-law Mark Muir, highlighting the dangers of life in the region.
Mr McRae said that apart from giving him more respect for the ordeal his father endured, the trek renewed his appreciation for the native “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels” who carried his father out to treatment.
“This was greatly reinforced by the way our guides and porters negotiated the track, helping us around all the hazards, giving us encouragement, respecting our motive for being there,” Mr McRae said.
He said the tropical environment made him acutely aware how disease claimed twice as many lives of Australian soldiers than attacks by the Japanese. His father got malaria and his uncle Thomas had scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C. His uncle was so emaciated when he paid a visit to his brother Keith in hospital in Papua New Guinea that Keith did not recognise him. It would be the last time the two brothers would see each other.
After the war, Keith McRae returned to farming and bought a dairy farm at East Framlingham before retiring in 1980 and moving to Terang.
Lex McRae said his father, who died in 1996, did not talk about his war experiences much and he first came to know of them when he was a teenager and his father was interviewed by a war historian.
While his war experiences were traumatic, the Camperdown-raised Keith McRae wrote in his war diary that it had allowed him to experience the most beautiful country he had seen.
The big impact the war had on him can be seen in his decision to name his farm Wandumi after Wandumi Ridge, where outnumbered Australian soldiers held off a Japanese attack on the village of Wau and its vital airfield.